Notes from the Belfast waterfront

By Ethan Andrews | Aug 09, 2018
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Mark Dittrick holds a small jar of rice he uses to illustrate facts about the North Atlantic Right Whale. In the background hangs a sign that he installed in 2015 to raise awareness about the endangered whales.

Right Whales three years on

Mark Dittrick installed a pair of signs along the Harbor Walk in 2015 to get the word out about the North Atlantic Right Whale.

At the time, offshore wind energy was making rapid advances. In pursuit of good wind, or perhaps to head off complaints from coastal homeowners, entrepreneurs and researchers were eyeing an area well over the horizon in the Gulf of Maine.

The problem, Dittrick said, is this put them in middle of the Right Whale breeding grounds. Between the "obstacle course" of mooring cables and the sharp-hulled fast-moving service boats needed to service the turbines, he figured the whales wouldn't stand a chance.

The signs were meant to appeal to boaters stopping in Belfast before heading across the Gulf to Cape Breton and Newfoundland.

For local day sails, on which he was sometimes invited to speak about the whales, he brought a gift-sized jelly jar partially filled with rice. The grains were about the size of copepods, the tiny crustaceans that Right Whales consume by the billions. And the jar contained 525 of them, one for each of the estimated number of living North Atlantic Right Whales.

"So, I was able to show the number of whales left and the size of what they eat," he said.

Recent estimates put that number closer to 450, Dittrick said, of which only 100 are breeding females.

"So you've got about 350 guys," he said. "That's a poor percentage."

The first North Atlantic Right Whale Dittrick ever saw was dead. It had been dragged ashore at Dibgy, Nova Scotia, where researchers "took it apart" to determine how it had died. What they found was a two-inch wide crack running from one end of its skull to the other — a sign that it had been hit by a ship.

Dittrick didn't know much about whales at the time — his background was in sustainable waste management — but he had recently been appointed head of conservation at the Atlantic Chapter of Sierra Club Canada and quickly became versed in the plight of the North Atlantic Right Whale.

The endangered species breeds in the waters of the Gulf of Maine, which makes it somewhat local to Belfast, but the whales were also far out of sight, and for most people, out of mind.

Recently, warming ocean waters have pushed the Right Whales further north each year in search of food. Last year, many ended up in the unfamiliar waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Dittrick said, where eight were killed by ship strikes and entanglements.

In U.S. waters, boats are prohibited from approaching within 500 yards of a North Atlantic Right Whale, but the Canadian government had no such protections. Dittrick recalled people asking where the best place was to see a Right Whale up close. He would tell them to go to New Brunswick.

Ship speeds at the mouth of the St. Lawrence were unlimited, and Dittrick said many of the larger vessels were running on autopilot with no watchmen or special equipment to spot whales.

The Canadian government has since enacted changes, and Dittrick said not one Atlantic Right Whale has been killed this year. On the flip side, he said, not a single calf has been born. He attributed this to a correlation between reproduction and finding enough food to eat.

"This is pretty much universal in the animal kingdom," he said.

Coast Guard's Grumpa retreats

A menacing storm cloud forced Grumpa's Retreat II back to Belfast earlier than planned Aug. 3. The pleasure boat doubles as transportation for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. That afternoon, the crew of five had been scoping out a section of Lincolnville and Islesboro for an Aug. 12 LifeFlight fundraising swim, at which the Coast Guard and Auxiliary are scheduled to run safety patrols.

"So boaters don't run over swimmers," Nancy Plunkett, an Auxiliary member from Camden, said.

Plunkett was standing at a forward rail holding a bow line. The other end looped around a cleat on a floating dock at the public landing.

At the helm, the boat's owner, Darrell Gilman, waited for word from headquarters. Gilman is "Grumpa," which he attributed to having a large family — "We ran out of variations of Grandpa," he said. When he talks to the Coast Guard, he identifies himself using the boat's number.

Gilman had been a member of the Auxiliary for more than 10 years when he sold the original Grumpa's Retreat in 2014, bought the current 32-foot pleasure boat and outfitted it to Coast Guard specifications, which he said means having two of everything — charts, plotters, radios, telephones.

The U.S. Coast Guard has an office in Belfast. The nearest full stations are in Southwest Harbor and Rockland. In between, the Coast Guard uses Auxiliary members working from contracted boats, like Gilman's.

Auxiliary Division 1 stretches from Rockland to Eastport and has 78 members. Plunkett said they regularly respond to groundings, check navigational aids, tow stranded vessels, and run safety patrols during fireworks displays.

"Pretty much anything the Coast Guard needs," she said.

A major tabletop exercise for hurricane and severe weather is on the horizon, she said.

More notes from the waterfront

At Front Street Shipyard, a second section of foundation for the planned 22,500-square-foot Building 6 is under construction, and shipments of steel parts for the building recently began arriving by truck. A Prock Marine dredging barge was in with a punctured hull after running aground.

The shipyard is now offering public tours of the facility, leaving from the Harbor Walk near Building 5 weekdays at 2 p.m. New York Yacht Club is returning to Belfast for the second time ever on Aug. 18. The venerable institution, synonymous with extreme wealth, exclusivity and Nantucket red pants, added Belfast to its summer cruise itinerary for the first time in 2015.

Darrell Gilman climbs down from the helm of his boat, Grumpa's Retreat II, after an Aug. 3 reconnaissance trip to Lincolnville and Islesboro with fellow Coast Guard Auxiliary members. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
Belfast Harbor tours are on the rise with a handful of small power boats, including The Back and Forth, docked center, and Mummichug, right, that offer shuttle service and short sightseeing rides. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
A fleet of lifts stands outside Front Street Shipyard. Shipments of steel for the planned Building 6 have been arriving all week in preparation for construction later this year. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
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